Return of the bison

Ryan Deuschle

Ryan Deuschle
Ryan Deuschle

Bison are expected to return to part of Fort Collin’s Soapstone Prairie and Red Mountain Open Space Parks this year. This marks a return of genetically pure bison to the Northern Colorado grassland ecosystem that has been devoid of the once prolific animals since around the mid-1800s when they were slaughtered by hunters, settlers and travelers until near extinction.

The return of these awesome ungulates is a collaboration between Colorado State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Larimer County and the City of Fort Collins. According to Larimer County board minutes, the project would be part of a conservation effort to “restore genetically pure, disease-free bison.” This collaboration involves CSU researchers who have been able to remove brucellosis from the pure Yellowstone National Park bison heard.

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Brucellosis (Brucella abortus) is a disease that can cause premature birth or the abortion of the animal’s pregnancy, and flu-like symptoms in humans. According to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, it is found in the Yellowstone Greater area and can infect bison, cows, elk and people. It is considered a spillover disease, meaning that bison and elk got it from cattle. Now the disease found in bison and elk could pass back to cattle. While this may sound scary, according to the CDC, there have been only a few cases of the disease actually being transmitted from these wild animals to cattle since the eradication of brucellosis in U.S. cattle.

Bringing bison back to the plains in Colorado is an exciting conservation step that increases biodiversity. The herd will be another source of healthy pure bison for other places wanting to establish pure bison herds. It will also give members of the public an opportunity to view these wonderful animals and gain an appreciation for the role they play in a grassland ecosystem. I can only hope it will inspire people to create a more symbiotic relationship with wildlife and wild lands in general.

There is another aspect about the reintroduction of bison that touches deeply on the human condition. That is, as a culture, we may find reintroduction efforts to be healing not only for the animals, but on human interactions with wildlife in general.

Industrial society has waged a steady and successful war on wilderness and wildlife that has eradicated incredible amounts of animal and plant species. We have treated the very web of life, including other humans, as little more than resources to be exploited. We do not, however, live separate from our environment. We should give consideration to and have compassion for the other living things we share this planet with. When we treat people and other living things as simply means to an end, we strip them of their intrinsic value, rendering them tools and materials. This hurts our humanity and weighs on our collective conscience.

Seeing these wild animals back in a place where they once roamed freely inspires us to feel like we have, even in some little way, corrected a past wrong. More than that, it provides the inspiration to do more than simply right wrongs, but to learn from the past and make our world a better place now and for the future. By becoming stewards of these bison, we make progress toward restoring and conserving ecosystems while at the same time enriching our humanity.

Collegian Columnist Ryan Deuschle can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @engageinlife.